Iszi Lawrence is a comedian, podcaster and history presenter and she also writes children's books, including Blackbeard's Treasure. Billie Swift Takes Flight and The Unstoppable Lettie Pegg. She is the co-host of BBC Radio 4's Making History and runs workshops for academic institutions teaching people to be engaging public speakers.
Iszi is a purple belt in Japanese style Jiu Jitsu so she also spends time in the week helping to teach short people (7-11 year olds) how to punch her in the face. She dabbles in illustration, plays the guitar, likes cooking and enjoys keeping fit. She lives in Reading with a poet and two cats.
Blackbeard's Treasure (Bloomsbury Education)
In this action-packed historical adventure, discover what it was really like to live in the golden age of pirates, why people became pirates, and some of the adventures they had along the way. Join Boubacar, a slave, and his friend Abigail, as they set out to sea and join a group of notorious pirates - and search for hidden treasure! We asked author Iszi Lawrence to tell us more about her latest adventure, Blackbeard's Treasure!
Reviews of Blackbeard's Treasure: "There is nothing romantic or sweet about these pirates - even the girls are tough and uncompromising."
Q&A with Iszi Lawrence
1. What happens in your new book, Blackbeard's Treasure?
Abigail's only friend is a boy called Boubacar who is one of the slaves on Abigail's father's plantation. They aren't allowed to be friends, but that doesn't stop them. When Blackbeard attacked St Kitts in December 1717, he burnt the sugar harvest and in the book, as a result of this, Abigail's father loses his fortune and gets himself killed. Boubacar seizes his chance for freedom and decides to run away.
Abigail is torn; does she stay on the island or does she abandon her life entirely and follow her friend to sea? It is an obvious choice and Abigail is fuelled with anger. She hates Blackbeard; he ruined her life! After a chance meeting with some pirates, can she get close enough to Blackbeard to seek her revenge?
2. Why did you decide to write about pirates for your new book?
I researched a bit into their history and was blown away by how much more exciting the real stories of the pirates were compared to the books, films and TV shows I consumed growing up.
3. So how much of Blackbeard's Treasure is based on fact?
The pirates are real and the ships, apart from Salt Pig, are real and they were where the book says they are in history. Blackbeard really did what he was doing in the book and I tried to get the sailing, the 18th century swearing and the descriptions, as close to reality as possible. I don't like making stuff up, so while we are definitely looking at the story through a 21st century lens, you are going to come away with a real understanding of problems facing people in the Caribbean at the time, and why they were forced in and out of piracy.
4. Can you tell us about your main characters, Abigail and Boubacar? Why did you want to include a friendship between a plantation owner's daughter, and a slave?
Boubacar is based largely on my brother Illias (British Moroccan by heritage). Boubacar is smart but impulsive, and hasn't got much respect for authority and it's understandable why. Abigail is incredibly clever, but her privilege means she isn't forced to question the status quo, that is, until Blackbeard attacks!
I'm quite the planner when it comes to writing so I wanted characters to not only be based on real people who were in the Caribbean at the time, but also tell the story of the Caribbean just by who they are. So to not have one of the characters as a slave would have meant overlooking history.
I also try to show how a minor change of circumstance changes a character's life forever. After the war, Abigail's father was able to get a mortgage on a plantation, while his fellow crew member, Charles Vane, failed to find work and ended up as a pirate. Ultimately, Blackbeard's Treasure is full of people trying to be good at a time in history when it was nearly impossible to be good.
5. What about Blackbeard himself, then - who is he based on?
Blackbeard AKA Edward Thatch or Teach is a real historical figure. He was possibly the most successful pirate in history, amassing a fleet of pirate ships so powerful that the British Government funded a fleet of pirate hunters to try and stop him. I helped make a documentary for Netflix called The Lost Pirate Kingdom and it was while I was doing research for this that I became so curious about him.
6. Did you come across any female pirates when you were researching this book?
Anne Bonny features in the book. We see a small part of her journey from resentful teenage bride to legendary female pirate, beginning in this book when she meets Calico Jack for the first time.
7. Did you need to do much research into slavery and the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, too, and did anything stand out for you?
Yes, I read a lot around the subject as it is naturally a very important topic and one most pirate stories completely miss out. We tend to imagine pirates were all white men from the West Country, however many African merchants and runaway slaves also ended up as pirates. I try to show that there wasn't much unity between them either as they came from different places, and had different religions and spoke different languages.
At one point, the majority of Blackbeard's crew were Africans he'd 'freed' from a slave ship he'd taken. Of course, he was a pirate, so despite having Africans as crewmembers, he was also a slave trader. One of the main characters is Black Caesar, a real pirate who has a complicated relationship with his captain. It is hard to be someone's friend when he sees you as potential treasure!
8. How well did you know your settings? Have you visited any of these places? How did you know how to describe them?
Sadly while I've been to the East Coast of America I've never visited the Caribbean. I need to sell a few more books before that is possible! However, the internet provides excellent natural history as well as local videos of places I'm describing.
I have been sailing, and consulted a number of people who sail tall ships. I also read a lot of historic accounts by people like Olaudiah Equinao writing in the 18th century about their experiences with slavery as well as descriptions of pirate attacks in old newspapers like the Boston Newsletter.
9. How well would you have coped with life as a pirate?
Not well. If I weren't chucked overboard while pooping through a hole on the bowsprit (the head), I daresay I'd have died of the flux… or angered the wrong pirate by taking the King's Pardon… or not taken the King's Pardon quick enough and got myself captured. I would have designed an excellent flag, though.
10. What are you writing currently, and what are you researching for it?
I'm having a look at the American Revolutionary War from the British side. General Washington would have been nothing without the Culper Spy Ring operating out of New York… and it happens that a boy working in a coffeehouse suspects a local shopkeeper after he finds a coded message. Can he convince the other grown-ups before it is too late? Or will he too start to question his own loyalty to King George?
More about Iszi Lawrence....
i. As well as writing about them, do you enjoy reading about history and historical characters?
Yes, I'm reading Cadfael by Ellis Peters right now. I love Hilary Mantel and Natalie Haynes too.
ii. If you could step back in time, where would you go?
I'd love to experience what Knossos was like… all the bull jumping and strange economy. Also Zapotecs in Oaxaca… and I'd love to see a dodo.
iii. Who do you most admire from history?
Too many to mention but Edith Garrud who featured in my first book The Unstoppable Letty Pegg. She was less than five feet tall, a suffragette and could throw a 6ft policeman using jiu-jitsu. I also have huge admiration for the women of the Home Front in WWII, particularly the Wrens but also the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) who delivered the war planes to the RAF, as featured in my book Billie Swift Takes Flight.